The process of resettlement of hundreds of Bhutanese refugees living in camps in neighbouring Nepal to the US has begun and the first batch is expected to migrate by January next year.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, Ellen R Sauerbrey, said the US government would take 60,000 refugees over a five-year period although the limit could be extended if required.
"There is no cap if more than 60,000 people are interested in being resettled. We would take those who come forward and qualify, unless someone has a record of violence against citizens, major threats and intimidations," Sauerbrey was quoted as saying on Wednesday by Bhutan's national newspaper Kuensel.
An estimated 3,000 refugees have applied to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) following the US government's offer of resettling them.
"We have an overseas processing entity set up to do the resettlement work. It is functioning now and the first interviews are going on," the US official said.
"Our goal this year is to interview about 15,000 and, in the next few years, we are expecting 20,000 to 25,000 per year, based on the refugees having an interest themselves. It is purely voluntary," Sauerbrey said.
The aim of the mission, backed by the UNHCR, is to resolve the plight of over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees who have been living in seven camps in eastern Nepal since the introduction of strict citizenship laws in their homeland 17 years ago.
Thousands of Bhutanese of Nepali origin started fleeing the kingdom in the 1990s, complaining of persecution by the royal administration. They found refuge in the camps in eastern Nepal, run by the UNHCR. Several rounds of talks between Nepal and Bhutan have failed to resolve the issue.
"The US and many other international communities believe that Bhutan has a moral obligation with people who are genuinely Bhutanese citizens, to let them come home," Sauerbrey said.
Earlier this week, the US official met the former king of Bhutan Jigme Singye Wangchuck and Prime Minister Lyonpo Kinzang Dorji in capital Thimphu to discuss the refugee problem.
"It was a very good opportunity (to meet the former king) to talk through the difficulties of the people in the camps and how Bhutan can move forward when there is a government in place after the elections and when Nepal has a government in place to get this process back on track," the official said.
Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway have also expressed their willingness to take in Bhutanese refugees.
"But most of the refugees are not really interested in settling in a third country. They want a solution and like to go back to their homeland in Bhutan," Bhutanese refugee leader A Shrestha told IANS.